Ruslan Osipov

Thoughts on software development

Why should you learn to touch type?

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I have a confession to make. Up until recently I did not know how to touch type. I would do what most people around me did: push the keys however which way I felt; make a typo; look down at the keyboard to find the letter I mistyped; repeat the whole process. I would put out up to 50 words per minute with this method, with an embarrassing error rate (which usually went up if I was showing something to someone). I am now terrified to think about those times.

It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Steve Yegge’s article “Programming’s Dirtiest Little Secret”, that I fully understood the implications of not developing proper typing technique.

Picture the following: programmer Clara is working in a small software company. Clara doesn’t use any fancy IDEs nor extendible editors like emacs or vim. Clara uses Windows’ default “Notepad” program to write and edit her source code. She is defending herself by saying that she doesn’t need any advanced features, and that she knows every keyword she needs to use by heart. She spends hours tediously searching for the files on her computer, opening them in Notepad, holding down arrow keys to get to whichever chunk of code she needs to edit (or even worse - lifts her hands off a keyboard and uses a mouse to navigate the file). Her editor only goes back one step with the “undo” operation… But Clara has good memory and she can re-type the code she erased.

What do you think of Clara? You might say that she is wasting her time and she should learn herself a robust editor. And of course, you will be right.

One day, Clara’s company hired a new tech lead - Jane. Jane noticed that Clara is very slow at accomplishing tasks assigned to her. So Jane showed Clara how to save a lot of time by using an advanced editor she uses. Suddenly Clara discovered a whole new world in front of her: it became much easier to read the code with parts of it highlighted, and the new text editor showed her when she would make a typo or a big error - even before Clara compiled the code. And Clara didn’t even have to re-invent the code she deleted, she could just travel down the undo tree back to the time when she erased the code: all of a sudden it felt like she had access to a time machine! Jane even told her that there are plugins which can write some code for Clara! How amazing is that? It took a while for Clara to learn how to use the new editor, but after a few months, Clara became almost as fast at doing her job as Jane. Maybe Clara even received a promotion from doing so many things in a short period of time.

If you don’t know how to touch type - you are Clara. You are wasting your time. You look ridiculous to your colleagues when you stare down at your keyboard while typing. Interviewers secretly laugh at you when you make five errors in a four-letter word. You are frustrated by even the remote possibility of having to write more than you absolutely have to.

Writing is a big part of the job as a software engineer. You write code, documentation, ask questions. Most importantly, you have to communicate with your colleagues and users. Most of this interaction is written: it’s a great form of communication for the job - written notes can be saved and searched through later. As a software engineer, you bring value to your company and its users. And due to the arcane nature of the craft, communication becomes crucial. You can be the smartest programmer in the world and you can write the best piece of software out there, but no one will know about it unless you communicate why is it so great, what it does, and how to use it.

By learning how to type properly, you turn a keyboard into an extension of your hand. All you have to do in order to type - is just think of words and sentences. Your muscle memory does the rest.

I now type somewhere between 60 and 80 words per minute with what I find to be a low error rate - and I have been touch typing now for little over a month. If you care for your craft, you have no excuse for not mastering a proper typing technique.

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